Can’t get a ticket to Hamilton? We feel your pain. But The American Revolution gives you a front-row seat to the history that inspired the show. Check out the historical context and meaning behind some of the soundtrack’s lyrics below.
Charles Lee was an experienced soldier who was a proud Patriot. When George Washington was selected as the leader of the Continental Army instead of Lee, Lee served as a general until being captured by the British forces in December 1776. Lee was released in April 1778 and rejoined the army, but his unauthorized retreat at the Battle of Monmouth landed him with a court-martial for insubordination. Lee’s failure to implement Washington’s plan of attack erupted in a violent incident between the two men. Lee remained angry and resentful at this ignominious end to his career, and it colored the rest of his life.
After Lee’s removal, Washington turned to Alexander Hamilton and the French volunteer Marquis de Lafayette.
As Hamilton’s writer and star Lin Manuel-Miranda said about Thomas Jefferson, he “wrote more eloquently about freedom than anybody, but didn’t live it.”
The same man who said that “men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master” remained a slave owner his entire life. Although he opposed the international slave trade and placed a ban on it during his time as president, Jefferson did not free his own slaves. Aware of the contradiction between his political and personal lives, Jefferson said emancipation would pose insurmountable problems and that is why he did not move to free slaves.
Marquis de Lafayette was a French aristocrat who dedicated his life to the cause of freedom. He became one of Washington’s most trusted officers and a hero of the American Revolution. After hearing about America’s fight for independence, he paid for his own and several other officers’ transportation to the States.
Lafayette was still a teenager when he took on the role of major general, and he had no senior military command experience. Washington adopted the young Lafayette as a surrogate son, and they continued to bond through the war. When the war ended, Lafayette was only 25 years old.
In 1792, Lafayette was captured by Prussian and Austrian forces and spent five years in prisons. His American friends helped as much as they could for his freedom and for his family, and he was released in 1797. He continued to fight for freedom for the rest of his life.
When Lafayette returned to visit the United States in 1824, people lined the street to give him a hero’s welcome. He went to every state in the Union, all of which threw huge celebrations for him.
Although they fought for freedom, some Patriots were completely opposed to allowing African Americans to fight in the war. Many of those who opposed were from the southern states, and the South Carolina planters especially did not like the idea of losing their slaves to the war.
Colonel John Laurens and Hamilton tried to persuade South Carolina to allow a black regiment to be raised there. Hamilton pushed, saying that the men would made excellent soldiers, and urged his fellow Patriots to overcome the “contempt we have been taught to entertain” and to see past the prejudices and self-interest. The appeal did not work, and Washington refused to back it. But in 1780, South Carolina finally allowed 1,000 black soldiers into their regiments—with stipulations: They were not allowed to have weapons, and they had to complete menial tasks.
In 1793, Jefferson resigned from the cabinet, believing that Washington was relying too heavily on Hamilton and ignoring his own input. With the support of Madison, Jefferson started to organize opponents to Hamilton’s Federalist party into the Democratic Republican party (which is where the two-party system came from).
In 1791, Hamilton placed an excise tax on whiskey. This lead to an uprising called the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, located in Western Pennsylvania. The tax hurt small farmers who distilled their surplus corn into whiskey and used it to barter for items they needed. When federal inspectors tried to force them to comply with the law, the farmers resisted. Washington called out militia from several states to suppress the rebellion, and the opposition collapsed. Hamilton felt vindicated by this firm act of federal power, but Jefferson found it excessive and unnecessary.
While James Madison’s short and frail stature and sickly disposition made him unsuitable for military service, he was “the Father of the Constitution” and played a key role in the transformation of the new United States. Small and ill, Madison was neither a charismatic nor an impressive speaker, but he was a force of intelligence that made him respected among his peers, especially Jefferson and Washington. He experienced bouts of poor health throughout his life, suffering from voice impairments, epilepsy, fevers, and even frostbite on his nose.
In the summer of 1781, Cornwallis planned to use York as the base for a new campaign in Virginia. It didn’t work. Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau (“the code word is Rochambeau!”) began planning a land campaign in Virginia to coincide with a naval attack. The plan required marching nearly 8,000 soldiers south, meaning they devised multiple routes and diversions. Washington’s deception measures—collecting boats, building camp bake ovens, planting false dispatches—were to convince the British they were targeting New York. The armies set off to the final march to Yorktown on September 28 where a French fleet blocked Yorktown from the Chesapeake Bay.
The battle took place over several weeks. On October 16, British Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercrombie led an attack on two French batteries near the American lines but did not completely put them out of action. The British War Council in New York could not provide Cornwallis any assistance, and a storm made a retreat across the York River impossible. Outnumbered two to one, Cornwallis had run out of options and set out to negotiate surrender. This marked the end of the major land battles of the war.
The honors of war generally dictated that the surrendering army play an enemy march—in this case, American or French—while flying their own colors. The British were denied this right and thus would surrender without the honors of war. While no one knows for sure, it is widely believed that the British played “The World Turned Upside Down.”
Want to learn more about the fight for independence? Pick up The American Revolution to read while waiting for Hamilton tickets to go on sale.